One Man's Opinion on the Rock & Roll Canon: Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums-#1
In 1967, through Sgt. Pepper's and The Basement Tapes, we see popular music going two distinct directions. The Beatles explored the unknown and Dylan and the Band kept it down home to see what they could turn up buried in their now-famed seclusion where they spent their time with American folklore and some moldy hymn books. The latter recordings still take us back to the gnarled and delightfully contradictory heart of roots music--the beautiful confusion of the secular and the sacred that we see in Americana at its best.
Not too big of a surprise that the Rolling Stone ranked Sgt. Pepper's number one. It's awesome whether your seventeen or seventy-two. No, I don’t think it would top my list, but I don't think I would be the able to make a list like that. Like Bob Dylan said, there's too many great recordings to have a favorite record, and it's more a matter of what's on top of the stack.* All lists and distinctions are ways of whittling away the time. I don’t really intend to critique the Rolling Stone's list. They’ve been catching a lot of shit anyway, and American music owes them more than they admit.
Listening to all 500 of those albums isn't really going to prove anything; its more like an absurd calling. I want to hit the most referenced albums by the most recognized publication in music writing. This isn’t a sprint by any means. It’s going to be a long drawn out marathon, but I’m going to finish that list—barring any unforeseen tragedies or a sudden case of spontaneous complete loss of hearing. I’m not necessarily going to comment on every album in a separate post, but I’m going to relisten to a lot of good music and hear a lot of things that fell through the cracks of my music catalog.
I just listened to Sgt. Pepper's: an album I’ve always loved, and still do. But this time I kept thinking of Elijah Wald’s (well-written, but misleadingly titled) How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n Roll, where Wald notes the genius composition of Sgt. Pepper’s and other late albums, but holds up early Beatles' recordings as emblematic of rock and roll.** He claims that Meet the Beatles more aptly captures the energy of rock and roll, grounded in that rhythm rather than experimental orchestrated and melodic flights into strangeness. The rock and roll Wald delineates had its roots in blues and therefore ultimately African rhythms. He points particularly to Sgt. Pepper’s as emblematic of a rock and roll band taking its course away from its rhythm and blues roots to focus on melody and orchestration, prevalent trends in the history of Western music. He cites Elvis as taking an analogous course through his career. Wald gives his due to Sgt. Pepper’s as a masterpiece of an album, but sees it as pivotal movement from the wild fun of rhythmic music that makes you want to dance. in all it's parental-shocking glory, to heavily orchestrated melody-centric rock compositions.
I've never disliked Sgt. Pepper’s, but I have grown aesthetically distant from it recently. Wald’s reading of it crystallized my sense that listening to this album once a year is almost enough for me. It’s not like many albums which I can’t seem to make it through a week without hearing. I follow Wald's argument that this album was emblematic of this switch from rhythm to melody and classical-type orchestration.
|Un-cropped photo from the shoot for the 1975 release of the official Basement Tapes: http://bit.ly/fLhEKi
To return to Sgt. Pepper's, the breakthrough studio work is undeniable. Not only was the whole circus meets travelling band theme revolutionary, it was the concept album that solidified our contemporary sensibilities of that very word: album. As attached as I am to some of those arrangements—“A Day in the Life” is brilliant, and I have yet to ever skip past “Lovely Rita”—and despite many other moments of unarguable brilliance, sometimes I still feel like I’m being lured into a song because it’s experimental. Sgt. Pepper's has that cerebral aesthetic appeal like Dalí and their earlier recordings more instinctual like Rothko--not that you can ever really have one with out the other.
For me Sgt. Pepper's creates the effect of curiosity that's stimulating initially. Let me clarify that I had a love affair with the album that lasted a good while. It never really ended, and we still get together every once in a while. But right now, I'm more interested in music that shows us our strange roots. This preference, makes Sgt. Pepper's though interesting, but not something I return to on a regular basis.
It’s quite the opposite effect of The Basement Tapes (note: I refer here to the original bootlegs from 1967—NOT the ’75 reissue put together by Robbie Robertson, which is still a good collection but something quite different). The five-volume bootlegs recordings from Big Pink are not good despite of the insufficient and scratchy presses we’ve inherited, but because of this unstable quality. We get a strange distorted vision of American history through their rendition of folk songs and Dylan’s improvisational rural crooning.
Although perhaps not aesthetically groundbreaking in the same way as Sgt. Pepper's—
at least for mainstream culture--Dylan and the Band’s recordings are more durable ones, and not just because there are more of them. I’ll take a random 10 songs off the Basement Tapes for a desert exile over Sgt. Pepper’s.
And here's why. It’s not that I don’t like Sgt. Pepper's.
It's great. It's about new possibilities and you can't beat the arrangements. The Basement Tapes
are about the past. I’m listening to them as I write this, and I feel underneath the impromptu recordings and studio imperfections and radiance of one of the best bands to ever play together live, underneath all that, we find a unique and vivid portrait of the American folk songs, directed by one of the tradition’s most learned and widely studied experts. And the Basement Tapes sound wildly fun at times--pretty close to the spirit of Elvis's Sun Sessions
and downright sad and lonesome at other times. Dylan rebelliously, as usual, demanded to make his music his way, and chose not to take it further
than he did on Blonde on Blonde
. How could he take it further than that? He decided to go back, and the sessions emit the spirit of irresponsibility and the thrill of spending endless hours producing great art.
The Basement Tapes, which we were never really meant to hear, take us back somewhere. They're rooted in the past, and that’s what makes them live longer for me than even the truly brilliant composition of Sgt. Pepper’s. Its by being traditional the Basement Tapes recordings make a rebellious statement--seemingly unintentionally--against psychadelia and other mainstream trends in 60s rock and roll. It's roots-based rebellion that lays claim to the soul the music came out of and insists on exploring it further. Lucky for us, its all on tape.
Originally published at A MISSING AMERICA:
Matt Shedd is a Featured Contributor at No Depression, freelance writer, and Graduate Teaching Fellow at University of Oregon. writing on A Missing America, Facebook, or Twitter.
Contact Matt: firstname.lastname@example.org
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*Dylan, Bob. Liner notes. Bob Artist's Choice : Bob Dylan: Music That Matters to Him [compact Disc]. , 2002. Sound recording.
**Wald, Elijah. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.